From Alyeska: Prince William Sound – a place of unrivaled beauty

By Andrés Morales
Alyeska’s Emergency Preparedness and Response Director

Tanker in Prince William Sound
To commemorate its 45th Anniversary, Alyeska is featuring stories about the people, projects and history of TAPS on its website.
To read more, head to
alyeska-pipe.com’s Memories and Mileposts

I first came to the Valdez Marine Terminal on a tanker in 1984 as I was just starting my chosen career in the maritime industry. It was winter. It was the most stunning place I have ever sailed to and remains vivid in my memory. The VMT appeared to be carved from a mountain in the raw wilderness. We loaded our cargo into tanks larger than cathedrals. It was a place out of time; I had never seen anything like it. Once full, we sailed out into Prince William Sound: a place of unrivaled beauty.

When I heard about the Exxon Valdez oil spill, I was sailing in the mid-Pacific. I had been at sea continuously for more than a year. I remember the feelings of rage, sadness, and horror at the thought of a cargo of crude in those pristine waters. I returned home in April and shared a house with two other seamen; none of us could believe what had happened. It was unthinkable at the time. The images and stories from that time linger in my memory, and I know that many in our Alaska community feel the impacts still to this day.

From that catastrophe came global change. Tankers worldwide are now double-hulled and there are comprehensive training and verification standards for crews. Despite an increase in crude cargos, the rate and severity of tanker spills has dropped more than 10-fold. And 33 years later, at the epicenter of that terrible event, is one of the largest comprehensive prevention and response operations in the world, the Ship Escort Response Vessel System: SERVS.

The equipment and training here are purpose-built and world-class and our people are capable and passionate protectors of Prince William Sound. I am proud to lead a team with this mission and ownership. And that ownership fosters a culture of continuous improvement; we must work every day to be better and learn from where we have been. It’s not enough to prepare for the incidents of the past; we must anticipate and prepare for new – unthinkable – risks.

And even as we march forward with progress, we must never forget the lessons and tragedies of 1989. Those images that still linger are a powerful motivation to do everything in our power to prevent oil spills, and be ready to respond aggressively if the unthinkable happens.

Partnering to protect the places we live, work, play

Board President Robert Archibald (City of Homer) and Executive Director Donna Schantz

The Council views itself as a partner of and resource for industry and regulators. In our advisory role, we provide expertise and local knowledge with the goal of collectively protecting the place in which our communities and livelihoods depend. A true friend gives both support and pushback when needed in life. In the same way, the Council works hard to recognize the successes of industry and also provide constructive feedback to continuously improve prevention and response systems in our region.

We remain concerned with what the Council views as a steady deterioration of regulatory oversight due to federal and state budget and staff reductions at key agencies. We also see budgetary and other reductions within industry. Both are constantly pressured to do more with less. The Council believes that if these problems are allowed to persist, the people, environment, and economy of Alaska will be at higher risk of another major oil spill.

Over the past year, the Council has encouraged the Alaska Legislature to ensure sustainable funding for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, Division of Spill Prevention and Response. Reduced revenues have resulted in a chronic shortfall. This directly threatens the department’s ability to effectively oversee the oil industry in Prince William Sound.

The Council has also been closely monitoring damage to oil storage tanks that occurred at the terminal in early 2022, and the subsequent work by Alyeska and regulators to investigate, repair the damage, and prevent a recurrence. While no substantial injuries were associated with this event, hydrocarbons were released to the atmosphere and there were operational risks associated with oxygen ingress into the tank head space. The Council believes this event was a near miss that could have had devastating consequences.

Events such as this, especially while resources are being cut back, are of primary concern to the Council and its stakeholders. We raise these issues so that appropriate and effective actions can be taken.

The prevention and response system for Prince William Sound and its downstream communities was developed through partnerships, and extensive work from members of the oil industry, federal and state regulators, legislators, and citizen stakeholders: Alaskans working together with industry to ensure an oil spill like the 1989 Exxon Valdez never happens again.

There have been vast improvements to the safe transportation of oil in the decades since the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The Council must work harder than ever to make sure the safeguards put in place to prevent another disaster are not weakened and the lessons learned are not forgotten.

The oil spill that did not happen is hard to hold up as an accomplishment, and the importance and cost associated with prevention can often be dismissed. It takes a lot of work, and the cooperative effort of many every day, to protect the place we live, work, and play.

Tough conversations must happen as we strive to maintain and improve upon the safeguards in place. Our history of success means that citizens must stay active and maintain partnerships with industry and regulators to keep this system working.

Community Corner: A new look at old programs

Maia Draper-Reich

Hello from the new voice here in the Community Corner! Since joining the staff in early August, I have enjoyed launching into and paddling around the vast and deep waters of the Council’s work. I step into the outreach coordinator role with my background as a naturalist, science and environmental educator, dancer, and outreach program manager.

I know the joy of facilitating young people learning about the nature that surrounds them. There is a specific excitement that comes when you help someone make a new connection about a science-based fact. I recognize the importance of clear information leading to an audience’s inspiration, which leads them to action.

As I explore and learn about the Council, I am sparked by the variety of community outreach accomplished and funded throughout the region. The Youth Involvement project stands out. As in years previous, the Council provided funding for educating the youth in our community on topics related to the Council’s mission, such as citizens’ oversight, environmental impacts of the operation of the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company oil terminal in Valdez and the oil tankers that call there, oil spill prevention, and response planning and operation. Eight programs were funded this year.

The Council sponsored a new youth track at the Prince William Sound Natural History Symposium this year, put on by the Prince William Sound Stewardship Foundation to encourage and engage young people in the Prince William Sound region. These presentations and others from the symposium are available online at the foundation’s website: Prince William Sound Stewardship Foundation – 2022 Symposium

Oil spill prevention and response engineering was taught through the remotely operated vehicles, or ROV challenge at this year’s Tsunami Bowl. This challenge was put on by the Prince William Sound Science Center. Youth Involvement also funded writing a ROV Kit Build-Guide for other educators to teach robotics and Exxon Valdez oil spill history and aftermath. It is available on their website. PWSSC’s R.O.V. Kit Build-Guide: How to build a simple remotely operated vehicle for classroom use

Among the rest are oil spill education for students via the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies and the Copper River Watershed Project, and for teachers during Alaska Geographic’s Kenai Fjords Floating Teacher Workshop and Prince William Sound College’s Ecology for Teachers course.

The Youth Involvement projects are indicative of the many modes of community outreach that are important to share the Council’s mission and the varied work of the staff and committees. Each connection the community of volunteers, staff, and partners make with the Council’s audiences – be it the member communities and groups, the greater scientific community, oil industry and regulators, or the citizens of the region affected by the Exxon Valdez oil spill – is a paddle dipping into the water and pushing the Council’s metaphorical kayak forward.

I look forward to continuing to tell the story of the spill, foster the network of organizations doing oil spill prevention and response education, and to inviting learners of all ages to understand their environment. As always, our goal remains to continue the Council’s mission through engaging our community members in meaningful experiences and inspiring new and long-time environmental stewards.

Plankton change with the seasons in Prince William Sound

In this photo, a Council staff member holds a sample, which is green due to the tiny plants, or phytoplankton, in the sample.
Staff member Joe Lally holds a sample collected during the spring phytoplankton bloom.

A new Council study will help improve monitoring for invasive species, such as tunicates, that live on the sea floor or hard surfaces.

Researchers collected samples of zooplankton and used an identification technique called DNA metabarcoding. This technique allows researchers to identify multiple species from the same sample.

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